Sunday, 31 August 2014


Our return journey was a little different.

We arrived at Livorno early, popped the car on the train and waited patiently in the station until our departure time.

It didn't take us long before we moved out of the 30 degree heat into the much cooler station.

When we got on the train it was like stepping into an oven. We weren't worried because we knew the aircon would cool us down.

After about an hour we were still baking and asked for help getting the air conditioning working properly.

When the engineer reached us he explained it was working, but facing a tough challenge. The train had been sitting in the very hot sun for quite a long time. It was a big lump of iron that readily absorbed the sun's energy. It was like putting ice cubes in an oven.

Eventually things did start to cool down but it took a couple of hours.

During dinner we learned from other passengers that our arrival time had been pushed back by just under two hours. We weren't aware but knew that the journey to the ferry would have less slack; we'd be eating on the boat rather than a restaurant en route as planned.

I thought we should have been told, and we might have been. I need to check my email.

I have survived just under 24 hours without internet access but have ferry wifi enabling this post.

Back to work tomorrow, in the afternoon perhaps.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Driving in Italy

I have tried to avoid this because it just confirms every stereotype. But Italian drivers lack discipline.

I haven't done any driving this holiday but I've spent a lot if time behind the dashboard as a nervous passenger. 

The condition of the roads isn't good. I know we complain about the pothole ridden nature of UK roads but the main roads we encountered in Italy were worse.

On main roads, say dual carriageways it seems to be acceptable to use the dotted white line as something to be straddled. Sometimes it's anyone's guess as to which lane a driver is intending to occupy.

This also happens between the inside lane and the hard shoulder. The solid white line here too is often under the midpoint of the car, van or truck. I haven't been able to figure out why this is the case.

Filter lanes joining roads are ridiculously short. In other countries drivers anticipate a filter lane and move over to accommodate joining drivers. In Italy it's every man for himself and you have to squeeze into whatever gap is available at high speed.

Personal space is in short supply in Italy. When I was younger I recall a friend instructing me on how to deal with Italian men if they get too close on the bus. The same problem exists on the road too but the solution isn't as easy. Drivers tailgate far more here than anywhere else I've driven.

And then there's driving in Rome where driving defensively just isn't enough. You have to drive aggressively to a) get anywhere and b) avoid invoking the ire of others on the road.

So if you can, take the train. The service is so much better than the efforts of Geeater Anglia.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Cold hard look

I have an issue with pompous arses who want to lecture me about the Ice Bucket Challenge. 

I did it because it seemed harmless, and raised awareness and money for a Motor Neurone Disease charity. I chose to donate to the MDNA because I am more familiar with that charity than I am with the work done by ALS. If people have given to ALS then isn't it great a charity has received more money? If they now have so much money they need to invest some to guarantee income for the future - then that's wonderful.

Some people have pointed out that top management at ALS earn money. Some people need to raise that ALL major and most minor charities have people on the payroll. I think that with the fund-raising they've achieved this year the ALS team have more than earned their salaries. 

Some people have complained that not everybody who has done the challenge knows what ALS or MND is. True, some don't. Some have found out about it as a result of the challenge though and increased awareness has to be a good thing doesn't it? 

Don't get me started on the people who bitch about the waste of water. I don't give a monkeys if you do the challenge and raise money for Water Aid or any other charity but unless you're living off the water grid in the same country as me then give up your lecturing. I don't live in a drought stricken country. Me saving water in my country doesn't help those who are in drought stricken countries. 

And I know this started as a challenge for ALS but let's not be critical of those who use the challenge as an excuse to raise money for other charities. Who cares? What's bad about raising money for other charities? 

And then there's criticism of charities who've tried to use  it as a vehicle for their own fund-raising efforts. I've seen Macmillan taking a beating for this. If I worked for a charity right now I'd be looking for the next Ice Bucket Challenge idea. I'd want the next social media charity explosion to be for my charity. I might try and jump on the Ice Bucket Challenge bandwagon. Who cares? What's bad about raising money for charity? 

Lastly there are those that say that only 50% of the fund raised through the challenge are incremental. 50% is substitutional. Right, so millions and millions have been raised incrementally and the same amount has been substitutional for other charitable giving. If this argument is going to be used then I'd suggest all major charity fund-raising should cease. Eliminate Comic Relief, kill Sport Relief, chop Children in Need. Stop the Macmillan Coffee Mornings, the Cancer Research Race for Life and ALL appeals by the Disasters Emergency Committee. 

Clearly this is a ridiculous notion. We should be delighted at the increase in charitable giving. Who knows, maybe the increase will stick. 

And for those that have been nominated and don't want to take part... It's fine, you don't have to. 

Rant. Over.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Weapons smuggling

I smuggled two weapons into St. Peter's Basilica in Rome today. 

St. Peter's was our last stop at the end of a long hot day.  We turned up to find a ridiculously long queue. We'd made the effort to drive to Rome and walk from the Colosseum so we decided to brave the high temperatures and wait. 

At this point I'd like to say that queue etiquette was non-existent. 

As we got closer to the front of the queue I spotted signs advising that penknives were not allowed into the Basilica. They even had airport style machines for X-raying bags. 

I had two Swiss Army knives in my bag.  They're useful!  There's the corkscrew, scissors, tweezers, screwdrivers, nail file etc. Even the knives can be useful for cutting bread our spreading pate when normal cutlery isn't available. 

What should I do? 

I know I didn't plan to stab anyone or deface any of the artwork but the police didn't know that. 

The police also didn't know that I once made a return flight to Cologne with a penknife in my bag without even realising it was there. 

I could hand them in, but if this was anything like airport security then I wouldn't get them back, and one of the penknives had travelled around the world with me; I didn't want to see it go. 

We looked for somewhere that I could stash my illicit hardware until after my visit when I could retrieve it. Nowhere seemed suitable so I decided to wing it and forfeit them if asked. 

I went through the body scanner at the same time my bag was being scanned. Nobody said a word, I wasn't challenged and I took my two "blades" around St. Peter's unnoticed. Nobody got hurt, nothing got harmed and I still have my penknives.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Horsing around

I don't like horse flies.

Given the amount of attention they've been affording me I wonder whether I should, perhaps, start neighing.

Their modus operandi lacks subtlety. They land on either skin or clothing. They prefer skin but will put up with clothing if ready access to flesh isn't available.

They then rip a hole in the skin. It's not a sophisticated manouvre and it does hurt. The idea behind the pain is that the victim focuses on the injury rather than the cause of the injury, this leaving the horsefly to leave the scene unharmed.

Once your flesh is exposed the horsefly then has ready access to your blood and will return, at will, to feed.

Apparently they are repelled by insect repellent, but I'm not convinced.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Pet crab

We went to the beach today.

It was full of scantily clad people bearing more than a passing resemblance to the colour of furniture we all used see in the houses of grandparents.

It was a drive away but the children wanted a beach day, so we obliged.  The weather was hot, the sea was warm and the satnav said it was just over an hour away.

We sat in the sun, watched people, dug a deep hole, swam in the sea and started a small driftwood collection.  Having been inspired by our stone stacking artist we decided we'd stack driftwood. Our collection was accumulating in a large Tupperware container and it made it into the boot of the car for the return journey.

When we got back Ethan noticed we had a stowaway. In amongst the driftwood was a crab, admittedly tiny but a crab nonetheless. He set about making his new pet comfortable.

First he added water, and then salt. His next concern was food. What do baby crabs eat?

We have an ants nest outside the building and, given the ready supply of these, Ethan thought we could feed the crab ants.  The crab seemed nonplussed by the offer of an ant but Ethan was undeterred.

The next thing a pet crab needs is a name. Ethan reasoned that if he was going to eat ants, then maybe he should be called Anthony.

So here's Anthony.  Advice on whether crabs will eat our other readily available food sources is welcome.

We have grass, rosemary, lavender, olive leaves and unripe olives, bay leaves, unripe figs and pine needles.

Update: While Ethan was in the shower, the following notes appeared under the bathroom door.

The spelling of butt is deliberate here.  "I'm sorry Ethan" "I'm sorry Butt". Family humour.

And it appears Anthony has met an untimely end. No foul play is suspected.

This blog post is delayed until Tuesday as a mark of respect.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Not the normal tourist attraction

We bought a guidebook with us that has pointed us towards some less touristy attractions.

Florence and Tuscany with Kids took us to Dreamwoods.

Finding the place was a challenge. The satnav rejected all address information we had so we relied on Google maps (thank goodness for Three's All You Can Eat Data). Some website somewhere warned of the gravel road but it didn't mention the hairpin bends and the possible state of the roads after yesterday's torrential thunderstorms.

We found it eventually and first impressions were a bit uninspiring. There didn't seem to be anyone around so we just started looking around.

A gentleman in his early sixties (perhaps) appeared. His name was Deva Manfredo and he explained that he was the artist responsible. He produced a map and suggested we might want to give him €20. He explained his art doesn't manipulate materials other than balancing items that he finds (mainly stones) upon one another.

We started wandering around this unusual sculpture park in the woods. The horseflies were a complete pain (avoid visiting in August and September or wear strong insect repellent) but the art was amazing. There were over 200 pieces of art scattered along a complex maze of paths in a wood near a water lily pond and meadow.

Talking to the artist I think he started living at the neighbouring commune but now lives in a local village. We didn't get to how he moved from Germany to Tuscany but I imagine "the sixties" might have had a part to play. He doesn't see much traffic and was delighted to have been mentioned in a guidebook. We had to retrieve the Kindle from the car to prove he'd made it into print.

He works with stones and stuff he acquires whether it's marble factory waste, driftwood or discarded electrical items.

His work is diverse, beautiful, strange, and fascinating. He has a small shed that serves as a shop where you can buy small take away examples of his art (where he has used glue) and calendars and postcards showing his work.

Here are some pictures.

A modest suggestion

Being a female tourist in Italy during the summer poses too many "what shall I wear" dilemmas.

There is a lot of walking to be done. This probably requires comfortable sandals but I reckon you can get away with flip flops at a push. There are also plenty of torre and duomo climbing opportunities. This is where sandals win against flip flops. One could consider trainers or similar but on a hot day that doesn't appeal.

Hot weather usually encourages Brits to dispense with as much clothing as possible. Women often wear strappy tops with very short shorts. This is a problem when trying to visit duomos. Italians, unsurprisingly, take religion very seriously and you must be dressed appropriately to be allowed entry into most churches or cathedrals. I've seen signs banning hats, strappy tops and short shorts or skirts. I think shorts that aren't very short are OK and a t-shirt with short sleeves is OK. I often wear sleeveless but not strappy tops and make sure I have a sarong with me to cover my shoulders and thus avoid causing offence.

I remember traveling with my friend Pam, Interrailing around Europe, in my early twenties. Either the Italians have become more tolerant of tourist dress (or lack of it) or I wear more these days.

Either way, nowadays, you are less likely to be refused entry for a lack of apparel. Attractions want your tourist Euros and will offer you a modesty cape made of paper if you aren't deemed to be wearing enough.

Saturday, 23 August 2014


I always forget something when I go on holiday. I think most people do. 

Sometimes it's the thing you've left right next to the front door to make sure you don't forget it. Often you're so busy trying to remember the obscure things that it's the obvious things you forget. Sometimes the things that get left behind are the things you remember a few days before travel and you think "I must remember that" and it's almost instantly dismissed to the deepest recesses of the mind. 

This time I forgot binoculars. This might not seem an essential item (I agree) but I'd seen a guidebook recommendation that it was a good thing to pack if you have children; it allows them to look at detail that they might otherwise miss. This particular guidebook had challenges for children that required binoculars. 

I forgot a bikini. This isn't strictly true as I don't own a bikini. I threw all of mine in the bin during a moment of self-loathing in which I decided my midriff should never be seen in public. Having seen other stomachs on display here I think I could have got away with one. Also, we have a private garden here that isn't overlooked so the only people's eyes I'd be offending would be family. So this is a retrospective "with hindsight" omission. And I could still debate the merits of a bikini. I think there comes a point when it simply isn't right. 

And I forgot knickers. This hasn't been the disaster one might imagine. I had packed some for our epic journey and I'd also packed laundry detergent. This and a quick trip to local shops has negated the need to go commando.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The times they are a changin'

Years ago everyone took pictures on holiday. The shutter wasn't clicked too often because film and processing were expensive and there was no preview prior to printing.  Cameras were either small compacts or bulky SLRs. Things are a little different now. 

A camera can be something we'd recognise as a camera or a phone or tablet. People even use GoPro video cameras for stills. 

And it used to be the Japanese for whom the people in the picture were more important than the scenery but now everyone is the master of the selfie. 

The quality of pictures seems less important and the secondary cameras on mobile phones and the poorer quality cameras on tablets are even preferable for those seeking a flattering self portrait. The selfie stick is something I've noticed for the first time this year. It's not just a monopod but a way of snapping a picture of oneself and family or friends without having to ask a passing stranger for help. 

Another reason that quality is less important is that photos can be edited almost immediately. 

I also think photos are more transient. We all used to treasure photos and place them carefully in albums. Now our albums are online, uploaded, shared and forgotten.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Three things to take on holiday

My mobile contract is with T-Mobile and last year our holiday was in France. To use my phone in France I bought a booster for £10. It had a call, text and paltry data allowance. Despite being careful with my data usage I burned through at least one additional booster.

This year I wanted a better solution and started my research a few weeks before we left. On one website I saw that customers with a SIM from Three paid nothing extra for calls, texts and data when using their SIM abroad. I noticed that to qualify for this benefit the SIM had to be active for a month before leaving the country. I also spotted that there was a loophole that allowed customers to buy a SIM with an add-on (a pre-paid top up with set amount of defined use) that could be used straight away. 

I did my research on the Three website and it wasn't crystal clear. Admittedly my research wasn't thorough and I didn't read everything, but I couldn't find the information I needed. 

I searched for T-mobile solutions. I found something about a £2 per day charge for calls and texts and a £3 daily charge for something pathetic like 50MB. I also found a reference to the booster solution I'd used the year before. When I contacted T-mobile they advised the web pages about boosters had been removed from the website and weren't visible. I sent them screen grabs to show they were still discoverable and turned my attention back to Three. 

I dived in and bought four SIMs. Two had £15 add-ons with calls, texts and unlimited data and two had £10 add-ons with calls, texts and 500MB of data. The SIMs were free and the purchased add-ons would last for 30 days. We started using them in the UK and they worked perfectly except for one hiccough (more later). 

It was a different story in the Netherlands. Hannah's phone worked and so did Ethan's but mine didn't and neither did Dave's. But the children's SIMs only worked for calls and texts, not data. I phoned Three using Hannah's phone and they explained that their "works abroad" claim didn't include the Netherlands but did include Italy. I was confused because the cheaper SIMs worked partially but I waited until we arrived in Italy. In Italy everyone's phones worked perfectly except I had no data. 

I lived on WiFi for a couple of days and then called Three. Their offshore customer services team were great. They talked me through simple checks then transferred me to the technical team. The fix involved deleting a couple of profiles hidden somewhere in Settings. I was soon starting to enjoy my "All you can eat" data. A couple of days later and Dave's phone stopped working. A quick call to Three and everything was sorted. 

So it worked, and despite the problems, I would recommend this as a great holiday solution.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

24 - part three

While I was busy sleeping and not sleeping and trying to sleep, the Autoslaap train was showing off. By the time I was conscious in the morning the train had changed direction. On the previous day we'd been pulling the carriages that contained the cars. I woke up to find we were pushing them. We'd turned around. After my initial confusion I checked to make sure we were still heading for Italy. We were. Thankfully. 

When the rest of the family were awake we got dressed and turned our temporary bedroom back into a sitting room. We retrieved the table from under the seats and we were ready for breakfast. Breakfast Autoslaap style was "different". It arrived packaged in a cardboard box rather like airline food. There was a Capri Sun (orange), a white roll, a wholemeal (or maybe rye) roll, butter, pate, jam, cheese spread, ginger cake and chocolate spread. An interesting combination but we were hungry and we were out of alternatives. Our attendant also brought us a surprisingly tasty coffee that was pleasant enough that we didn't have to use the icky creamer that was provided. 

Once we'd cleared breakfast it was time for more whist, scenery-gazing and guessing where we were. I'd woken up in Milan and occasionally we passed somewhere else I recognised. It didn't take long at all before we arrived in Livorno at 11:30am on the dot, as per the itinerary. 

It was now that being almost being last to check-in was a disadvantage as we were one of the last to retrieve our car. That was the bad news. The good news was that the chipped windscreen was not shattered. 

While I was waiting for the car I had a chance to speak to some other travellers. Someone was only staying in Italy for just a week before returning. Someone else was doing the trip for their fourth year in a row. There were people with young children, people with teenagers and couples without children. Some people didn't like the hassle of flying, others didn't want to drive the long distance. Amongst the vehicles there was a Morgan and a BMW touring bike. 

As we were on our way I checked to see if we would repeat the experience. The consensus was "yes" but we haven't completed the return journey yet so I'll reserve judgement.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

24 - part two

We were the only ones to have arranged or cabin away from a seat setting. Nobody else had moved onto bunks. Ethan was happy reading horizontally and I took advantage to gain some horizontal shut eye. So I didn't care that we were bucking the trend.
As we moved through countries I gradually realised we'd moved into Germany and the first thing that struck me was the increase in graffiti. I think this surprised me because perhaps I imagine graffiti to be the preserve of a disaffected youth. Germany's PR machine has been persuading me that they're doing alright Jack (or whatever the German equivalent of Jack is). I might expect it in Spain where youth unemployment, or unemployment generally is shockingly high, but not in Germany.
We went through Cologne and along the Rhine. I saw vineyards planted on infeasibly steep slopes and then I started to feel hungry, and thirsty.
The nice attendant paid us a visit. We'd splashed out for a meal in the restaurant car and the reviews I'd read said that it was worth the expense. The advice was to book the early sitting at 6:00 pm to be sat eating dinner alongside the Rhine. Our attendant wanted to know if we wanted wine with our meal and recommended we find her at dinnertime to lock our cabin while we dined.
We'd had a sneak peek at the restaurant car earlier and it was a bit posh. It wasn't very posh but it didn't seem to be a shorts and a t-shirt environment. Dave and I changed into something more suitable but our children were immovable objects and turned up wearing their usual scruffy attire.
Dinner was good, the view was excellent, but there was a problem. I felt perhaps there wasn't enough dinner. If I added the calorific content then it was probably sufficient but I really was quite hungry. Luckily I had some emergency shortbread back in the cabin to tide us over.
After dinner it was back to the cabin for some post dinner entertainment.  This comprised of Hannah teaching Ethan how to play Cheat and Dave and me teaching the children how to play Whist. The remaining bunks were assembled and we prepared for sleep.
There were blankets in the cabin and each bunk had a freshly laundered sheet fashioned into a sleep sheet rather like a sleeping bag liner. There were also pillows with freshly laundered pillow cases. There was a slight problem with the sleeping arrangements. One could argue whether this was a fault of Autoslaap or of us but Dave was too tall to fit in a bunk properly. Given that he regularly suffers with a bad back this was not ideal but he did his best not to make a fuss.

Monday, 18 August 2014

24 - part one

I'm writing about our mega train journey now because if I leave it much longer the detail will get forgotten.

The intent behind this blog post is to inform. I'm imagining a reader who's conteplating this journey and wondering whether it would suit them. Also this post will be split into several parts, partly because it makes it more digestible for the reader.

Firstly, it was our choice to take the ferry to the Netherlands. I think that if you were to look at elapsed time driving and Eurotunnel would be quicker.

Whilst the ferry journey itself was excellent, getting off the ferry and through passport control wasn't great and probably took an hour.

Driving to 's-Hertogenbosch (also known as Den Bosch) was easy and took just over an hour. Finding the right turning for the Autoslaap (Motorail) wasn't quite as easy. It's clearly a niche service and, as such, had discrete signage.  However, a couple of wrong turns and a lot of finger crossing seemed to work.

You need to remember that this isn't a big ferry port or airport used by thousands daily but is a small service used by a very small number of customers. Have faith and look for the tiny signs for Autoslaap. When these signs stop and you think "It can't be through there" it is.

We thought we were early but actually we almost the last to check-in. Bizarrely we were required to drive along the same platform used by passengers. All but the driver exited the car and took the luggage we'd need for an overnight stay on the train. Dave, our driver, then carefully drove the car onto the carriages designed to take cars on two decks. We were told to disable the alarm to prevent any embarrassing flat battery incidents.

We had time to kill before boarding and ate some amazing sandwiches we'd bought at motorway services just before the Den Bosch exit.

The station waiting area was unprepossessing but we weren't there long before required to board.

The train wasn't up to Richard Branson's standards and I think a fair description would be "ageing rolling stock". Everything was just a little bit worn but perfectly serviceable.

We left on time, and before long our attendant arrived with a choice of welcome drink: Lambrusco or orange juice (with bits, as the kids would say).

The train carriages were divided with a corridor along one side with cabins on the other. Our cabin had five chairs that could be transformed into four bunks.

We think there was a fifth bunk for someone short but it didn't have a mattress so we used it for luggage storage.

We started in seat mode but it didn't take long for the children's excitement to require that half of our cabin be turned into bunks.

We sat and watched the countryside roll past the window and then when the children bored of that they stuck their heads in books.

It's quite relaxing to sit and watch the countryside and towns and cities go past the window, and that's how I spent the few hours before dinner.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Tits out

I know you might have been expecting a blog about a train but that will have to wait.

I've had breasts on my mind today.

We were in Siena today doing the usual touristy things and that included the crypt for the Duomo.

In the crypt was this:

Now this was painted in 1327. It's a religious painting and it shows a breast.

So for the last lots of hundred years looking at a woman breast feeding has been acceptable not only in public, but in a church.

So why are Instagram and Facebook (Ok, same company) being so prudish and banning the breast, even in a breast-feeding context.

I think the attitude of Facebook serves to make women feel "dirty" for doing the most natural thing in the world.

It's not often you'll hear me saying the church is right about anything, but, on this one, I'm willing to consider their point of view.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

A ferry nice way to travel

At about 7:45pm we headed off for Harwich arriving just over an hour later.

There were no queues in front of us at document check out boarding. We just drove straight on and started exploring straight away.

The ferry seemed very new and lacked the knocked about look that years of exposure to the public can create.

Our cabin exceeded expectations with five berths, a TV, and crisp, clean, white linen all ready to use.

We dumped our bags and explored the rest of the ship. Everything was very efficient and organised.

We noted our rather early (5:30am) alarm call and headed back to the cabin.

Sleep was interrupted by children sleep-talking, Hannah kicking first a book and then a towel from her bed to mine, narrowly missing my head, and Ethan choosing to lose a book with a great thud when it hit the floor.

Stena, it seems have a sense of humour. At 6:30 CET we were all woken to the tune "Don't worry, be happy."

Nice one Stena.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Who said that?

We needed a guide book and a map.

I spoke to Dave about which ones I thought would be a good idea, told him I'd placed an order and showed him the products when they arrived.

Yesterday he went into town and bought a guide book and map.

Apparently he was completely unaware I'd done anything.

The phrase "You never listen to a word I say" seemed appropriate.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Epic adventure

Today we start our epic adventure.

It's sort of a Planes, Trains and Automobiles adventure but with a boat and without the planes.

I'm apprehensive.  Do you get nervous before a holiday?

Have we got all of the tickets and documentation?

There is one thing that could go wrong.  Dave's car has a chip in the windscreen. If it were my car it would have been sorted within the week but Dave's been driving around with this for months, and I only found out a few days ago.

Calling Autoglass in the UK is nice and easy and simple.  Fixing a windscreen in Italy when the train journey has rattled the windscreen into smithereens, will not be as simple.  Dave says it will be fine.  I am not as confident.  

I could have insisted he fix it or I could have said "If he thinks it'll be OK, then I'll trust him."  It was tough call but I'm going with trust.

How do you find the time?

When people find out I blog they often say "How do you find the time?" And "I could never do that?"

Well I say "This is a blog post. It took a few minutes. I could have typed it whilst sat on the loo."

I didn't, just in case you wondered. I'm sat on the landing in a house full of sleepyheads. And I'm off to join them.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A sad day

Robin Williams was reported to have been found dead today.  

It's thought he died by suicide.

He was known to be suffering from depression.

The news has been full of how great Robin Williams was with tributes flooding in from the great and the good, and David Hasselhoff.

The Samaritans have advice for the media on the reporting of suicide; I'm not sure all media outlets followed that advice today.

But the news coverage has allowed some discussion about depression.

The thing that, for me, makes today sad, is that a man died because he felt he wasn't good enough, and that is very, very sad.


Monday, 11 August 2014

Party Party Party

The All Party Group on Alcohol Misuse want us to stop drinking as much as we do.

I think that's OK as a goal, but let's look at how they want to do this.

A phased ban on alcohol sponsorship - Well this worked for cigarettes, so introducing it on alcohol seems reasonable.

An increase in funding for treatment and access levels for problem drinkers - Helping people who are addicted has to be a good thing and the Government has invested millions in strategies to help those addicted to nicotine.

Make the training of parental substance abuse mandatory for all social workers and healthcare professionals - I'm surprised it isn't already.

Launching national public awareness and behaviour change campaigns - These are likely to be the type of thing we've seen on cigarette packaging and the national anti-smoking advertising.  The only issue I have with this is that I like the look of many alcohol products.  I think that bottles and their labels are an art form but don't think this is a good enough reason to prevent this proposal from being adopted.

The introduction of minimum unit pricing - Increasing the price of alcohol will reduce demand but I'm not sure that a minimum unit price is the answer.  I don't see why consumers should line the pockets of retailers.  I'd much rather see any increase in revenue given to the taxman.  This means I think we should have a tax for every unit of alcohol.  I think this should work, and perhaps increase the coffers of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

If you also think this is a good idea, have a think about how much the tax per unit of alcohol should be.  I have an idea, do you?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

X for

Today we enjoyed rather too much of the A303, the M3 and the M25.

My ears were bombarded with the whining child's cry of "I'm bored" so I kicked off the alphabet memory game.

This has many forms but I merged a few themes to initiate "On my holiday I took ..." And kicked off with an Aardvark.

We worked our way through the alphabet with the following choices:

Handbag full of hippos
Roger Rabbit
Tiny tortoise
Vampire bat
X-Ray Tetra

And then it fell over because my submission of X-Ray Tetra was not allowed by the two remaining contestants Dave and Ethan.

Dave asserted that I'd clearly cheated. 

I had, but you tell me of an animal that starts with X.

Then they couldn't agree on what should happen next. Should my submission be allowed to stand or should poor Ethan be required to come up with an alternative suggestion? Should they skip straight to "Y"? 

The game collapsed and we resorted to what we do best: calling each other names.

Saturday, 9 August 2014


I had an unresponsive black screen on my Kindle today. After enough charge time the power button had no impact.

In case you find yourself in the same boat then you might want to know how to reboot. Press power and volume buttons simultaneously for over six seconds.

Still reckon the Kindle is mullered but at least it looks like it's fixed.

Friday, 8 August 2014

I'll pass

Am in Devon and I have seen the latest craze on the water.

There is sailing, canoeing, windsurfing, surfing etc. but none of these is the latest thing.

If you want to be hip, cool and down with the kids you need to get into paddle boarding.

What, I hear you ask, is paddle boarding?

Good question. It's good core exercise apparently but looks weird to me.

It's standing on a board that's like a fat, long, wide surf board and paddling with a kayak paddle to get somewhere, or nowhere.

And if this isn't extreme enough for you apparently you can do yoga on your paddle board.

I'll pass, but don't let me stop you.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Persistence pays off

I bought something from Sainsbury about  ten days ago and thought I'd kept the receipt. It transpires I had lost the receipt when I decided I needed to return it.

The item had cost £16 but at the Customer Services desk they wanted to refund just £8 because the item had been reduced after my purchase.

I understood their position but didn't think they hang on to £8 of my money for no benefit to me.

I've been in this situation before in Sainsbury and IKEA. This is how to handle it.

Tell them the credit card number you used to pay for it and roughly the date of purchase. Ask that they trawl through their transaction records to find out how much was actually paid.

When I've done this the record has been found and I've received a full refund.

Clearly it's easier to keep a receipt, but if you lose the receipt, remember that they can check their records in your behalf.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Mum's advice

I was going to blog about something entirely different today but Victoria has prompted me to share some of the wisdom I gleaned from my mum.

I used to work in the same office as my mum.  We worked at Pollards when I was 16, in the general office.  

This would have to be the dream job for any 16 year old because do you know what Pollards made?  Sweets, and lots of them.

They also distributed Kelly's ice cream and they may have made it, I'm not sure, and they also distributed loads of crappy ready meals like Findus lasagne to hotels in the grockle heaven that is the West Country.  I remember they sold faggots, and I had absolutely no idea what they were, but they didn't sound appetising.

Well I don't recall seeing many of the sweets, or the ice cream, and definitely none of the crappy ready meals.

Working in the general office, my days were filled with envelope stuffing and moving bits of paper around.  I might have done some adding up as well but it was a very dull job.

As with many of the jobs I've done it hasn't been the job content that's kept me going back, it's been the money and/or the people, and in this case it was the money and the people.

It was an office full of women who called one another by their first names with an office manager who was "Mr Hellier".  It never occurred to me at the time that this was a very unequal working environment.  I just did my work and didn't ask questions.

Working alongside mum was great because she gave me some sound advice which I've continued to use throughout my working life.

The first piece of advice I remember is "If you walk quickly holding a clipboard and a pen people will assume you're busy."  These days you would probably look a bit suspicious with a clipboard but handful of documents or laptop would be a good substitute.

The next advice is "Make sure you wee on company time."  This is the most pragmatic piece of business advice I have ever received.  It makes sense on every level.

Thanks mum. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Cleaning sucks

Some time last year, James went out of his way to recommend something that would change my life.

This type of thing happens rarely in the office so I paid attention.

How often does a man recommend something to make housework easier?  Well if it had ever happened before then I could count the times but it's difficult to count nothing.

James was really enthusiastic so I listened attentively.

A task that was always difficult made an absolute breeze by the acquisition and use of a tiny little gadget.

Well it's not so tiny, but James persuaded me that I needed this must-have gadget.  It wasn't a difficult sell.  I'm a sucker for a gadget, especially one with blinding Amazon reviews.

I splashed some cash.  Well actually I splashed some Tesco Clubcard vouchers and within a matter of days I was in the possession of a Karcher window vac.

A what?  A window vac?  Yes, a window vac.

It's like a squeegee but electric and sucks the the water into a reservoir.  It eliminates streaks and doesn't leave a puddle of cleaning liquid at the squeegee's finish point.

I understood James's evangelism and I started my own Karcher window vac ministry.

I have now had multiple conversations with friends and colleagues spreading the word about the window vac.  The genius of this bit of kit is that I've hardly used it on windows but it comes into its own on worktops and glass tables as well as cars (windows and bodywork).

Buy one, you won't regret it.


Monday, 4 August 2014

So you want to go on holiday...

Hannah enjoyed a day at Alton Towers as part of scout camp.

She has been telling Ethan about it and they now want a trip to Alton Towers.

I could put up with the nagging or I could use it to my advantage.  Mwah hah hah - evil mum.

Dave will be the difficult one to persuade so I have set them a challenge.

They need to research the park, potential accommodation, transport, other tourist attractions in the area and then sell the idea to their dad and me.

They started their research immediately, but still have a way to go.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

What goes around

Just over a month ago I was driving my car along the High Street when the gearbox stopped working.  I couldn't move the car because I couldn't get it into gear.

Luckily I was in a fairly unobtrusive part of the High Street where cars could pass me.  Had it not been a Sunday and had I been 20 feet further forward and I would have been causing far more of an obstruction.

I called home for assistance and sat there waving traffic past me until a couple of gentlemen offered to help push the car back into a bus stop.  I gratefully accepted their offer and was then in a much better place to wait for help.

Yesterday I saw a car near the High Street with its hazard lights on.  It was stationary and from its road position I guessed the driver hadn't intended to stop there.

I offered the driver help after discovering that she too had clutch problems: could I push the car for her while she steered?  I was looked up and down, thanked for my offer but told I couldn't possibly push the car on my own.  The driver was clearly agitated as she'd been on the receiving end of the frustration vented by passing drivers.

I explained that I might well be able to push the car on my own but also, if I stopped to push the car then others would stop and offer help too.  She looked doubtful but thought it was worth giving it a go.

Well I did move the car but also, my prediction was correct.  As soon as I had the car rolling someone else stopped to offer a hand.

Between us we moved the car to safety just before her husband turned up to provide further help.  She was very thankful, wanted to know my name and held my hand, calling me an angel.

I know that I would have offered help even if I hadn't needed it previously, but it felt good to lend a hand.  I was putting something into the Bank of Assistance having made a withdrawal not too long ago.  What goes around...

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Short story

At what age should shorts disappear from a woman's wardrobe?  Let's start by agreeing that anything calf length isn't a pair of shorts.  Shorts, in my opinion, should finish above the knee.

Are shorts always OK?

Does the suitability of wearing shorts depend on the state of the derriere and the legs that they will cover?

I like wearing shorts.  I have about ten pairs and I don't want to think I'm getting to the age where they are deemed to be inappropriate attire.

So can I wear shorts forever, or will there come a time when I decide it's just not appropriate anymore?

Hannah has started to tell me that some of my shorts are unacceptable, on me.

As one ages do shorts gradually increase in length?

I didn't realise that Jenny Joseph's poem Warning was the UK's favourite post war poem.  I think it could be improved if it mentioned shorts.




When I am an old woman I shall wear purple 
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me. 
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves 
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter. 
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired 
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells 
And run my stick along the public railings 
And make up for the sobriety of my youth. 
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain 
And pick flowers in other people's gardens 
And learn to spit. 

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat 
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go 
Or only bread and pickle for a week 
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes. 

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry 
And pay our rent and not swear in the street 
And set a good example for the children. 
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers. 

But maybe I ought to practice a little now? 
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised 
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.



Great Britain - a review

This isn't a review of the country ahead of a Scottish Independence vote, but a review of Billie Piper in Great Britain, a satirical view of phone hacking with a smattering of MPs' expenses scandal for good measure.


I would recommend this show, but not, perhaps, for the reasons you might suspect.  It's very funny and laughter is good for you, so go see it as medicine for the soul.

It took me a little while to relax into watching the action because Piper was too stiff and posh when compared with my expectations.  I wasn't expecting her to burst onto the stage as Rose Tyler but I didn't expect a tabloid editor to adopt a false, posh accent akin to something one might feel necessary when receiving a telephone call from the Queen.  She also had a rather aloof air which didn't fit with my expectations of someone chasing sleazy, grubby stories about celebrity D-listers.

This could be the script so perhaps I should be laying the blame at the playwright Richard Bean.  Although Bean does deserve praise for the non stop humour.

The characters in the show are an amalgam of those that were a part of the real scandal.  

Piper plays Paige Britain who I think is perhaps a female Piers Morgan, especially as, in the play, she ends up with a chat show in the States.  

Rebekah Brooks makes an uncanny appearance with a doppelgänger in all but hair colour.  The stage Rebekah Brooks knows nothing of the hacking and is portrayed as an innocent campaigner who has more of a "helicopter view" of operations rather than an in-depth understanding.  She also loves horses...

Robert Glenister plays the ousted editor brilliantly.  He adopts a Kelvin Mackenzie character and much of the humour comes from him.  His language is at sewer level and he is responsible for many of the more ludicrous headlines we see on the front page of The Free Press.

Aaron Neil plays the hilariously deadpan ineptitude of police commissioner Sully Kassam.  He was one of the stars of the show with excellent comic timing and delivery.

There is a Murdoch figure with senile tendencies and an obvious ruthless streak.

There is a Prime Minister who represents the worst of Blair and Cameron, who beds Paige and will sacrifice all principles to acquire more power.

A female Andy Coulson appears, leaving the paper to take up a role in Downing Street.  This character is the type of person that one hates on sight, so, very well written and cast.

It's true enough to life to be credible, but the life portrayed is so base and despicable that there is little shock achieved because we've all seen and read about it.

The set is clever and versatile with large glass walls that serve as screens for displaying headlines from the Guardener "We think so you don't have to", The Dependent and of course, the star publication "The Free Press".  So while we're seeing "Crisis in Middle East" from the Guardener, we're also seeing "Immigrants eat swans" from The Free Press.

We also see BBS TV reports that bear a remarkable visual similarity to those of the BBC.  The use of video extends to some excellent YouTube spoofs of Sully Kassam's news conferences reminiscent of Nick Clegg's smash hit "I'm Sorry"; and "live" coverage of the Commons Select Committee in which, when challenged about spending £200K with a spying agency, Piper responds by asking the female chair whether the cost of a bikini wax that left a "heart-shaped landing strip" should have been claimed on MP's expenses.  Cue embarrassment and a Free Press headline "Tax on Wax" or was it "Wax on Tax"?  I forget.

The show contains the kind of language one might expect from a newspaper office.  In the first scene one character has the word "C*NT" on his forehead.  He's asked why and replies nonchalantly that he's "C*nt of the week."

It's currently showing at the National Theatre, tickets from £15 apparently.

Friday, 1 August 2014

By popular request - I have a fan

I say popular request but I actually mean Vic has been nagging me to blog again.

And other than Vic, I don't have a fan.

The weather's been hot and humid and this is the time of year my thoughts turn to spending money to make nights, particularly, a little cooler.

When we lived in the States we were the only people we knew in the neighbourhood who didn't have aircon.  We lived in a house that the Addams family would have been proud to occupy but it was the skankiest house in a very expensive neighbourhood, hence the lack of aircon.  So we had fans, or at least one fan.  We even brought the fan back to UK and hung onto it for years until the realisation of the voltage difference and an over-crowded loft, forced us to ditch it.

And every year, in the UK, I wonder about buying a fan, or three.  In a normal British summer I'd be using it for about three days but for the rest of the year it would live in the loft.  This means that even when it gets hot I won't be bothered with retrieving the fan(s) from the loft.

So is it worth it?  Should I spend my money?

And if I do spend my money do I go cheap and cheerful and buy a £20 plastic fan or do I spend £50 at least on a quality metal fan (that I'll hardly use ever)?

I think I might have made my mind up.